Show: THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL Date: April 13, 2018 Guest: Jeremy Bash, Malcolm Nance, Richard Stengel, James Stavridis, Eric Swalwell
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Andrea Mitchell, NBC`s chief foreign correspondent, joining us live right now.
We`re watching the podium here, expecting a briefing from Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dunford.
GEN. JAMES MATTIS (RET.), SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.
As the world knows, the Syrian people have suffered terribly under the prolonged brutality of the Assad regime.
On April 7th, the regime decided to, again, defy the norms of civilized people, showing callous disregard for international law by using chemical weapons to murder women, children, and other innocents. We and our allies find these atrocities inexcusable.
As our Commander-in-Chief, the President has the authority under Article 2 of the Constitution to use military force overseas to defend important United States national interests.
The United States has vital national interest in diverting a worsening catastrophe in Syria and specifically deterring the use and proliferation of chemical weapons.
Last year, in response to a chemical weapons attack against civilians and to signal the regime to cease chemical weapons use, we targeted the military base from which the weapons were delivered.
Earlier today, President Trump directed the U.S. military to conduct operations in consonance with our allies to destroy the Syrian regime`s chemical weapons research, development, and production capability.
Tonight, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States took decisive action to strike the Syrian chemical weapons infrastructure.
Clearly, the Assad regime did not get the message last year. This time, our allies and we have struck harder. Together, we have sent a clear message to Assad and his murderous lieutenants that they should not perpetrate another chemical weapons attack for which they will be held accountable.
The 70 nations in the Defeat ISIS Coalition remain committed to defeating ISIS in Syria. The strike tonight separately demonstrates international resolve to prevent chemical weapons from being used on anyone under any circumstance in contravention of international law.
I want to emphasize that these strikes are directed at the Syrian regime. In conducting these strikes, we have gone to great lengths to avoid civilian and foreign casualties. But it is a time for all civilized nations to urgently unite in ending the Syrian civil war by supporting the United Nations-backed Geneva peace process.
In accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibiting the use of such weapons, we urge responsible nations to condemn the Assad regime and to join us in our firm resolve to prevent chemical weapons from being used again.
General Dunford will provide a military update.
GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Hey, good evening. I`m joined by our French attache, Brigadier General Montegu, and our British attache, Air Vice Marshal Gavin Parker.
Secretary Mattis has just outlined the policy and legal framework for tonight`s strike in Syria. I`ll address the strike from the military dimension.
At 9:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, French, British, and U.S. forces struck targets in Syria in support of President Trump`s objective to deter the future use of chemical weapons. Our forces were integrated throughout the planning and execution of the operation.
The targets that were struck and destroyed were specifically associated with the Syrian regime`s chemical weapons program. We also selected targets that would minimize the risk to innocent civilians.
The first target was a scientific research center located in the greater Damascus area. This military facility was a Syrian center for the research, development, production, and testing of chemical and biological warfare technology.
The second target was a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs. We assessed that this was the primary location of Syrian sarin and precursor production equipment.
The third target, which was in the vicinity of the second target, contained both a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and an important command post.
U.S., British, and French naval and air forces were involved in the operation. And for reasons of operational security, I won`t be more specific this evening.
Before we take questions, I would like to address how this evening`s strikes were qualitatively and quantitatively different than 2017.
Last year, we conducted a unilateral strike on a single sight. The focus was on the aircraft associated with the Syrian chemical weapons attack in April of 2017.
This evening, we conducted strikes with two allies on multiple sites that will result in a long-term degradation of Syrian`s capability to research, develop, and employ chemical and biological weapons.
Important infrastructure was destroyed which will result in a setback for the Syrian regime. They will lose years of research and development data, specialized equipment, and expensive chemical weapons precursors.
The strike was not only a strong message to the regime that their actions were inexcusable, but it also inflicted maximum damage without unnecessary risk to innocent civilians.
And with that, the Secretary and I would be glad to take your questions.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Secretary.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Secretary, first of all, did the U.S. suffer any losses initially?
And more broadly, could you -- the President, in his remarks, said that the U.S. and its allies are prepared to sustain this operation until the Syrians stop using chemical weapons. Does this mean that U.S. and its partners will continue military operations beyond this initial operation tonight?
MATTIS: That will depend on Mr. Assad, should he decide to use more chemical weapons in the future. And, of course, the powers that have signed the Chemical Weapons Prohibition have every reason to challenge Assad should he choose to violate that.
But right now, this is a one-time shot. And I believe it has sent a very strong message to dissuade him, to deter him from doing this again.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any U.S. losses?
MATTIS: We`ll brief on that in the morning. We`re not -- we want to give you a full brief in the morning. Right now, we have no reports of losses.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Secretary Mattis, Chairman Dunford, thank you for doing that. Have you seen any retaliation from the Russians or the Iranians? And how long do you think this operation could last? Is it a matter of hours or days or could go longer than that?
DUNFORD: Yes. We did have some initial surface-to-air missile activity from the Syrian regime. That`s the only retaliatory action that we`re aware of at this time.
And the nature of the operation, we`ve completed the targets that were assigned to the United States Central Command. Those operations are complete.
DANA WHITE, ASSISTANT TO THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Barbara Starr.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: General Dunford and, also, Secretary Mattis, could you talk a little bit more about your concerns that you`ve expressed earlier in the week about Russian escalation?
General Dunford, were you able to talk to your Russian counterpart, General Gerasimov? What are your concerns about escalation?
And if we`re permitted to ask your British counterpart a question, I would like to know the sense of your government about whether the situation with the Skripals and the Russian involvement in that, how that Russian involvement played a role in your decision to enter this coalition this evening?
DUNFORD: Barbara, let me address the last point first. Our attaches were kind enough to join us this evening. They`re not going to get out in front of their president and prime minister, respectively, so that they`ll -- the national messages will be provided from their capitals here very soon.
But with regard to the Russian concerns, we specifically identified these targets to mitigate the risk of Russian forces being involved. And we used our normal deconfliction channels -- those were active this week -- to work through the airspace issues and so forth. We did not do any coordination with the Russians on the strikes nor did we pre-notify them.
WHITE: Tom Bowman, NPR.
TOM BOWMAN, NATIONAL DESK REPORTER, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: Mr. Secretary, it was just a couple of days ago that you said you`re still assessing the intelligence on the chemicals weapons attack -- suspected attack.
So at this point, do you know what the chemical was used in that attack? Was it sarin? Was it chlorine? And, also, what is your evidence it was actually delivered by the Syrian regime?
MATTIS: Say the last part again, Tom.
BOWMAN: What`s your evidence it was delivered by the Syrian regime? Are you quite clear it was?
MATTIS: I am confident the Syrian regime conducted a chemical attack on innocent people in this last week, yes. Absolutely confident of it. And we have the intelligence level of confidence that we needed to conduct the attack.
BOWMAN: As far as the actual chemical used, do you know what it was? Was it nerve agent? Was it chlorine? Do you have a sense of what it was?
MATTIS: We are very much aware of one of the agents. There may have been more than an -- one agent used. We are not clear on that yet. We know at least one chemical agent was used.
WHITE: Gordon Lubold.
GORDON LUBOLD, PENTAGON REPORTER, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: I just want to clarify on the deconfliction line. You notified the Russians ahead of time before the operation began what you were going to do and what targets you were going to strike?
DUNFORD: Gordon, to be clear, the only communications that took place specifically associated with this operation before the targets were struck was the normal deconfliction of the airspace, the procedures that are in place for all of our operations in Syria.
WHITE: Jennifer Griffin.
JENNIFER GRIFFIN, FOX NEWS NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: General Dunford, you mentioned that the Russian -- or the Syrian air defenses had engaged. The Syrian state T.V. is saying they shot down 13 Tomahawk missiles. Can you refute that?
DUNFORD: Jennifer, I can`t tell you the results. We literally -- as you know, the time on target was about an hour ago, and we came straight up here to give you the best information we have right now.
Tomorrow morning, the Secretary will talk about it, and we`ll give you more the detailed operational update and some of the details. But those details aren`t available to us right now.
GRIFFIN: But this wave of air strikes is over?
DUNFORD: This wave of air strikes is over. That`s why we`re out here speaking to you now.
WHITE: Missy Ryan.
MISSY RYAN, PENTAGON AND NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Secretary Mattis, I just wanted to follow up on what you said about the legal basis for this strike. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
Because in your testimony the other day, it sounded like you were saying that this -- a potential strike would somehow be linked to self-defense and the presence of American forces in Syria. Can you say a little bit more about that?
And also regarding whether or not there will be future action or additional strikes, you said they would depend on whether or not the outside government conducts future chemical attacks. But can you explain a little bit more about what would be the threshold for that?
Because there were repeated chemical attacks between the April 2017 attack and today.
RYAN: And would you consider a small-scale chlorine attack sufficient to launch additional strikes?
MATTIS: Right now, I would just tell you we`re in close consultation with our allies. We review all the evidence all the time. It is difficult, as you know, to get evidence out of Syria, but right now we have no additional attacks planned.
But as far as the legal authority, under the Article 2 of the Constitution, we believe the President has every reason to defend vital American interests. And that is what he did here tonight under that authority.
WHITE: Tony (INAUDIBLE).
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, sir. A couple of questions for General Dunford. What were some of the targeting considerations or difficulties involved in going after chemical facilities? How long did the operation take to plan?
And for Secretary Mattis, last year`s strikes were described as proportional moderate. How would you describe this year`s in contrast to that?
DUNFORD: Yes. Tony, we chose these particular targets to mitigate the risks of civilian casualties, number one. We chose these targets because they were specifically associated with the chemical program, the Syrian chemical program.
And obviously, when we take a look at target planning and so forth, we look at the location relative to other populated areas, collateral damage proportionality. So these targets were carefully selected with proportionality discrimination and being specifically associated with the chemical program.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All standoff weapons or any manned aircraft --
DUNFORD: We`re going to --
DUNFORD: We`re going to -- there were manned aircraft involved. I won`t give you any of the details operation until tomorrow, but we will do that at that time.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir, is there proportional --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you. Thank you, Danny (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A question to Secretary Mattis. So up until yesterday -- and I`m going to quote you here -- you said, I cannot tell you that we have evidence. So when did you become confident that a chemical attack happened? And the second one, you said --
MATTIS: Yes, yesterday.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yesterday, after you said that?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And then, second, you talked about targeting the chemical weapons infrastructure of al-Assad. If there were any chemical weapons or agents in those facilities that you targeted, I assume they would create a health hazard in the region, or no?
MATTIS: Yes. We don`t believe -- we did very close analysis. As the Chairman pointed out, we did everything we could in our intelligence assessment and our planning to minimize, to the maximum degree possible, any chance of civilian casualties.
We are very much aware this is difficult to do in a situation like this, especially when the poison gas that Assad assured the world he had gotten rid of obviously still exists. So it is a challenging problem set, and we had the right military officers dealing with it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you can confirm there`s going to be no leak into the air or to the --
MATTIS: Of course not. We`ll do our best.
WHITE: Tara Copp.
TARA COPP, PENTAGON BUREAU CHIEF, MILITARY TIMES: General Dunford, when the surface-to-air defenses engaged, did they become a target, and did U.S. air power or other assets take out those targets?
DUNFORD: Yes, Tara, I`m not aware of any response that we took right now. Again, we`ll gather overnight.
As you can imagine, we tried to leave the United States Central Command alone here tonight. They were quite busy. We`ll, through the night, gather the operational detail and we`ll be back tomorrow morning to provide that to you.
WHITE: Hans Nichols.
HANS NICHOLS, NBC NEWS PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Secretary Mattis or Chairman Dunford, have -- last time last year, you changed the force- protection levels for the Syrian troops that were -- the U.S. troops that were in Syria. There are 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria. Have you changed force-protection levels based on potential responses from Russia?
DUNFORD: Yes, Hans, as you can imagine, the Commander always takes prudent measures especially in the environment that they were in tonight. So they did make adjustments.
NICHOLS: And just to be clear on the deconfliction line, you told them that you`re going to be operating in airspace, but you didn`t tell them, the Russians, what the targets were.
DUNFORD: That is --
NICHOLS: And then --
DUNFORD: That is absolutely correct. We used the normal deconfliction channels to deconflict the airspace that we were using. We did not coordinate targets or any planning with the Russians.
NICHOLS: What was their response, sir?
DUNFORD: We -- well, that information was passed at the operational link from the Combined Air Operational Center in Qatar, so I wasn`t on the line, but we -- that kind of information, just to put it in perspective, is passed routinely, every day and every night. So they may not have found anything unusual about that particular airspace deconfliction.
WHITE: Way in the back.
KATRINA MANSON, US FOREIGN POLICY & DEFENSE CORRESPONDENT, FINANCIAL TIMES: Thank you so much. Katrina Manson for the "Financial Times."
Can you talk a little bit about any Iran targets that you were initially -- Iran-associated targets that you initially considered and why you may have not gone for them? And could your colleagues explain exactly the sort of contribution that you`ve made to tonight`s operation?
MATTIS: Yes. Again, our allied officers are here out of respect for the fact that they were part of the mission, from planning all the way through to the political decision taken. And once their heads of state speak tomorrow, then that will be the initial statement from those capitals.
But as far as any other targets, we looked at targets specifically designed to address the chemical weapons threat that we have seen manifested. The whole world has watched in horror these weapons being used. Those were the only targets that we were examining for prosecution.
WHITE: Luis Martinez.
LUIS MARTINEZ, ABC NEWS PENTAGON DIGITAL JOURNALIST: Mr. Secretary and General Dunford, you mentioned three target areas that were struck. How can you be sure that, from now on, these are all of the target areas or all of the involved production facilities for chemical weapons that the Syrians have -- are using? And do you believe that there are additional locations where they are producing such materials?
DUNFORD: That`s a great question. We had a number of targets to select from. And again, we did not select those that had a high risk of collateral damage, and specifically a high risk of civilian casualties.
And so the weaponeering -- you know, back to the earlier question, the weaponeering was done, the modeling was done, to make sure that we mitigated the risk of any chemicals that were in those facilities and mitigated the risk of civilian casualties.
So were there other targets that we looked at? There were. We selected these specific targets both based on the significance to the chemical weapons program, as well as the location and the layout.
WHITE: Helene Cooper, "New York Times."
HELENE COOPER, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Thanks. Secretary Mattis, it seems like this strike tonight was pretty limited, not too dissimilar from last year. I know there`s three targets this time instead of one, but it still seems a little bit more targeted and more specific than what I think a lot of people were expecting.
Can you walk us through your decision to -- did concern about escalation with Russia affect your decision to keep this more targeted? And moving from there, how much assurance can you give us that this is going to do what the strike last year didn`t do, which is basically to stop President Assad from using chemical weapons again?
MATTIS: Helene, nothing is certain in these kinds of matters. However, we used a little over double the number of weapons this year than we used last year.
It was done on targets that we believed were selected to hurt the chemical weapons program. We confined it to the chemical weapons-type targets. We were not out to expand this. We were very precise and proportionate, but at the same time, it was a heavy strike.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Secretary, prior to the attack, how important was it to get the support from the allies, not only from an intelligence point of view, but also just from the countries themselves?
MATTIS: It`s always important that we act internationally in a unified way over something, especially that it`s such an atrocity as this that we`ve observed going on in Syria.
But I would also tell you that these allies -- the Americans, the French, the British -- we have operated together through thick and thin, through good times and bad. And this is a very, very well integrated team.
Wherever we operate, we do so with complete trust in each other, the professionalism, but more than that, the belief that one another will be there when the chips are down. So it`s important, and it`s a statement about the level of trust between our nations.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: General Dunford, could you just let us know whether the Syrians were able to hide a lot of these chemical weapons in the last several days? Since there`s been so much talk about a possible strike, did that give the Syrians time to kind of move some of these weapons off limits?
And then, Secretary Mattis, just to confirm, earlier when you were saying you had information about one of the chemicals, we`re all assuming that means chlorine, that you have information confirming chlorine, but not necessarily sarin. Can you just clarify that part?
DUNFORD: Yes. For the first question, I`m not aware of any specific actions that the Syrians took to move chemical weapons in the last couple of days.
MATTIS: Yes, we`re -- we are very confident that chlorine was used. We are not ruling out sarin right now. Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: General, I`d like to follow up on Luis` question about the targets that you first examined and then triaged down to the three tonight. It sounds like you went after facilities and not the actual weapons, as indicated earlier, to minimize accidental risk to civilians.
In the targets that remain, could you characterize, perhaps, the ability for Syria to ramp up again and, again, have chemical weapons?
DUNFORD: Yes, I think it`s too early to make that assessment. It`s too early to make that assessment right now.
WHITE: OK, last questions. Joshua (ph)?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you. General Dunford, did any Russian defenses engage U.S., British, or French ships or missiles?
And, Secretary Mattis, were any of the strikes tonight intended to kill Bashar al-Assad?
DUNFORD: The only reaction that I`m aware of at this time was Syrian surface-to-air missiles. I happened to be down in an actual command -- a military command center and was aware of that activity.
I`m not aware of any Russian activity, and I`m not aware of the full scope of the Syrian regime response at this time. Again, those will be details we`ll pull together for you in the morning.
MATTIS: Yes, the targets tonight, again, were specifically designed to degrade the Syrian war machine`s ability to create chemical weapons and to set that back right now. There were no attempts to broaden or expand that target set.
And, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming in this evening.
Based on recent experience, we fully expect a significant disinformation campaign over the coming days by those who have aligned themselves with the Assad regime.
And in an effort to maintain transparency and accuracy, my assistant for public affairs, Ms. Dana White and Lieutenant General McKenzie, the Director of the Joint Staff here in Washington, will provide a brief of known details tomorrow morning. We anticipate about 9:00 in this same location.
But thank you again for coming in this evening, ladies and gentlemen.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.
WHITE: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: At 10:23 Eastern Time, Brian Williams here with you from New York. Lawrence O`Donnell has this evening off.
And just a programming note, we will be extending this evening and going until 1:00 a.m. Eastern Time on this particular shift before others take over our live coverage because we have so much to cover.
And just at the end there, this briefing with two Marine Corps Four Stars - - one active duty, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs; the other retired and now a cabinet officer, Secretary of Defense.
We heard the repetition of the mission tonight, and that was to degrade the Syrian ability to pull off a chemical weapons attack. In and out, if the start of the Iraq war was shock and awe, this was much closer to shock, now let`s get out of here.
The attack is over. You heard the Secretary of Defense call it a one-shot deal, or words to that effect. Americans were at work in the air, in the skies, if not over Syria then awfully close, along with their compatriots from France and Britain.
We have a number, as you can imagine, of guests and experts standing by to talk to us, but, first, I want to bring in a former chief of staff at CIA and notably, former chief of staff at the Pentagon. Someone we see often around here and we`re thankful for that.
Jeremy Bash is, additionally, an MSNBC national security analyst.
So, Jeremy, putting on your old Pentagon hat, how do you view the briefing just concluded and what can you add, perhaps, to the record that they were willing to brief on?
JEREMY BASH, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE: This was about the most limited targets set that the United States could select. It was a one-day mission, three targets, very narrowly tailored. And there were three big questions that, I think, were discussed tonight.
First, was the United States going to go after chemical weapons facilities or more broadly, regime targets of the Assad regime? They chose the narrow option, just chemical weapons targets.
Second, were they going to go after just Syrian targets or broaden it to Iranian, maybe Russian targets? Again, they chose the narrow option, just the Syrian targets.
And third, was this going to be a one-day mission or a multi-day mission? And a third time, they chose the narrower option, just a one-day mission. This is one and done about the most limited military response that the United States and its allies could have fashioned.
WILLIAMS: Jeremy, there was a lot of material there and a lot for us to get through and ask you. There was no use of the kind of -- during the Cold War, they called it the red phone with Russia.
General Dunford made it very clear that they used normal deconfliction channels. That is to say, as we do most nights of the week, he led us to believe, we`re going to be in the airspace over the following areas.
He said our contact with Russian military was limited to that. That there was -- how did he put it -- no pre-notification, no coordination with the Russians.
BASH: That`s right. In Doha, Qatar, at Al Udeid Air Base, the United States military maintains basically an open line with the Russian military and says, hey, we`re coming in, conducting operations principally against ISIS in the western part of the country.
Tonight, they basically did the same thing. They said, we`re going to be over the airspace, but they did not inform the Russians of the specific targets were -- which were more closely aligned towards the western part of the country -- excuse me, we normally operate in the eastern part. Tonight`s operations were more in the western part, around Damascus, and a little further north.
WILLIAMS: Jeremy, one of the questioners brought this up. It can be dicey going after chemical weapons, per se.
First of all, I need a definition from you. What is a chemical weapons precursor? Our viewers are going to hear that more and more as the coverage goes on. It was already used once.
Second of all, what safeguards, do you think, were taken as to not blow up a chemical weapons facility and then have the after effect of chemical weapons becoming airborne?
BASH: Well, the precursors are the chemicals that when you combine them become weaponized. And they can, if they explode, can actually do, obviously, tremendous damage to human life.
And so I think when the military chooses targets, they try not to drop American ordnance directly on fully formed chemical weapons less the plume or the smoke of the weapons be released and harm individuals.
But, Brian, if we can just talk for a moment about the military platforms used. The briefers tonight did not say specifically which American military platforms were used.
I suspect we`re going to learn that they were principally standoff weapons, meaning that no American troops were on the ground and no American troops were in the skies directly over these targets.
Basically, no American troops in harm`s way. They were all fired either from fast attack submarines, naval destroyers, or maybe, in some cases, some air launch cruise missiles from B-52s and B-1s.
And there were probably other planes in the sky to conduct aerial refueling, reconnaissance, maybe electronic warfare, maybe some cyber attacks and suppression of Syrian air defenses.
But for the most part, no American was in harm`s way tonight, although we - - when we go to war, Brian, we go not as Democrats or Republicans. We go as Americans and we pray for the safety of everybody involved.
WILLIAMS: Yes. And apparently, as we say, we had Americans in the skies, if not directly over target then, as Jeremy puts it, using that -- the Pentagon term of art, standoff aircraft. Aircraft that are able to fire from a distance and not be over the airspace, not be over air defenses.
And let`s not forget those air defenses in Syria include some that the Russians have brought in.
Jeremy, stand by and thank you.
Hans Nichols is standing by, our correspondent at the Pentagon.
And, Hans, while we talk to you, we`re going to try to patch in some Syrian T.V, 5:29 a.m. there.
WILLIAMS: Their coverage is coming on the air. We heard initial reports - - you were getting them, too -- of explosions in the south, east, and west of Damascus. Having heard the target list, it makes a little bit more sense now.
What can you fill in that was not covered, Hans, at the briefing?
NICHOLS: Well, what we`re learning more about is just where they targeted and what they used. We`re going to try to get a full readout on just what kind of fixed-wing aircraft they used. Because I think that`s the key point here, is that they did use fixed aircraft.
I think it`s also important to note that they have changed the force- protection levels for those U.S. troops, over 2,000 U.S. troops in the eastern part of Syria. Very clearly, they said they factored that in too, and they have adjusted their force-protection levels.
Now, they said they spoke with the Russians over the deconfliction line, but they didn`t necessarily directly telegraph what they`re going to do. They basically said, we are going to be flying in this sort of airspace.
We still don`t have a good sense of what the reaction is going to be out of Moscow. I do think it`s important to note that they, A, took pains to say they didn`t want to kill any foreign nationals.
From President Trump himself, you heard quite a throw down towards both Iran and a subtle hint, a subtle challenge towards Russia. You didn`t hear that from either General Dunford or Secretary Mattis. They seem to be at pains to make the point that they didn`t want to kill civilians, and they certainly didn`t want to kill foreign civilians.
And finally, Brian, where this goes from here, they`re very clearly anticipating an information campaign from the other side. And I think the challenge for the U.S. administration here in the next 24 or 48 hours is that difference between evidence of a chemical weapons attack and proof.
Now, Secretary Mattis said he`s confident. It`s one thing for a Secretary to say he`s confident and be surrounded but be flank by two allies. It`s another to have enough proof in front of international audiences to really make that point.
I think that`s something we need to look forward -- look towards in the next 24 or 48 hours, Brian.
WILLIAMS: Yes, that warning about propaganda and fake news came at the end of the briefing. Hans Nichols, thanks. We`ll let you go back to fact gathering there.
Malcolm Nance joins us as he did last night. He is a veteran of naval intelligence and counter terrorism. Also importantly, a veteran of prior U.S. operations against Syria in the 1980s.
Malcolm, there was some mention of air defenses being engaged against incoming either ordnance or aircraft by U.S., Britain, and/or France. I suppose that would be the very worst news for the home team, and that is learning that anything inbound was hit.
MALCOLM NANCE, MSNBC COUNTER TERRORISM AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: Yes, you`re absolutely right. I was watching footage that`s being -- that`s coming from Damascus. It`s unconfirmed footage, but it appears relatively real time.
And you can see some of the air defense systems boosting up into the air, some SA-2, a very old missile from the 1960s, and some smaller air defense and a lot of anti-aircraft triple-A, anti-aircraft artillery, guns.
And you pretty much see where we were striking, down to the southeast in Almaza Air Base -- that`s a helicopter, air defense, and command and control center -- and the Barsa Barracks out to the north and the west.
And most likely the Jamraya scientific research facility. This facility has been struck many times, not just -- but the Israelis have been trying to take it out. And that`s a very large facility that`s just over the mountains, the Qasioun mountains, outside Damascus to the northwest.
So we`re seeing these activities there, but what you don`t see is any effective fire. And that`s because they don`t have any effective fire. The air defense ring for the Russians, the S-400, is way too far to the north to have protected Damascus with any surety.
WILLIAMS: And you take everybody at their word, Malcolm, that they only made the usual deconfliction calls to say to folks we were going to be operating American aircraft in their airspace, airspace over this conflict, and that nothing further -- no further steps were taken with the Russians to say, hey, this isn`t about you?
NANCE: Yes, I believe that. I mean, we`ve done that several times. We carry out operations in the northwest, in Manbij. And we have a deconfliction routine that`s set up between U.S. forces and Russian forces operating out in the northeast -- I`m sorry, operating out in the northeast, near Manbij.
So for us to give that call, the Russians knew it was coming. They probably saw some of the assets we had in the air. You know, we had a drone that was operating off of the Mediterranean for almost 15 hours.
And then when the penetrations and jamming started, you just pick up the phone and you call them. And you tell them, what you`re about to see is what it`s going to be.
And it doesn`t have to escalate any further. If the Russians wanted to escalate it further, it would have, but it`s a one and done strike.
WILLIAMS: And, Malcolm, finally, I have to take you into the realm of politics. And it`s necessary because we have a president who, after campaigning on returning the element of surprise, criticizing the previous administration, has tweeted his intention days ago to do what happened tonight.
That certainly is a new element for our armed forces to deal with. And there was a question at the briefing, pointing out, matter of factly, they`ve had a couple days to move stuff around.
NANCE: Well, you`re right. And to be honest, I mean, if I were, you know, standing there with the national command authority, I`d just tell them that was a mistake. That was just a straight-up mistake. He gave away the element of surprise.
In a perfect world, no one would have said a thing. No schedules would have been changed. A few meetings would have happened. The element of surprise would have happened three days ago. The surprise is when bombs start blowing up in Damascus.
So that is usually how we have done it. Every president, every leader has their style. And there is always an announcement. As a matter of fact, when we got word that the President was going to make an announcement in 30 minutes, that meant that the weapons were already flying.
We know that. The Russians know that. The only people that don`t know it were the Syrian air defense operators who were about to die.
So you know, did Donald trump waste his shot here? Yes and no. The target set that we decided to hit, they were going to get it anyway. Did we get all the chemicals? Most likely not. But I think the message is sent now.
WILLIAMS: All right. Malcolm Nance, thank you for being part of our coverage.
Damascus and Moscow share a time zone. It is 5:35 a.m. in Moscow as well where our correspondent, Kier Simmons, is standing by.
And, Kier, this was a fraught mission, of course, because of the Russians present, because of the Russian military stance there, and because of what`s going on currently between our two nations.
KIER SIMMONS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: That`s right, Brian. And as you can see behind me, daylight is just dawning here in Moscow, and the news from Damascus and Syria will be just arriving in government departments across this city.
A contact that I`ve been speaking to in Damascus tells me that they -- their house was shaking. They heard the explosions. They heard the air defense.
That suggests to me, for example, that, potentially, President Assad himself will have heard these strikes, and there will be phone calls from Damascus to here in Moscow. Angry phone calls from, effectively, what is a government that is seen as an ally here in Moscow.
And we are now seeing responses from the Russians around the world. The Ambassador to the U.S., Brian, just issuing -- the Russian Ambassador to the United States just issuing a statement. It is long but I just want to prese (ph) it for you, Brian.
Our worst apprehensions have come true. Our warnings have been left unheeded.
He calls it a predesigned scenario that is being implemented.
Again, we are being threatened, the Russian Ambassador says. We warned such actions will not be left without consequences.
Meanwhile, the first Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee here in Moscow issued a statement pretty quickly after the strikes began or the announcement of the strikes was made, saying the attack violates international norms. That it is an act of aggression towards the Russian Federation, and in his statement, compares President Trump to Hitler.
Now, that is the kind of language that you do hear from Russian lawmakers. It does not necessarily represent the view from the Kremlin or the Ministry of Defense here or the Foreign Ministry who tend to tone down the language a little bit.
We, of course, Brian, have been speaking to those officials all the way through this week. We have been trying to communicate with them today. I think they are just figuring out exactly what this is.
But I will say this, Brian -- and, again, I and the team here talk to -- it`s our job to talk to Russian officials as much as possible and get their view.
I will say this. I think, privately, they will be viewing this as a limited strike. Of course, they will be listening to those messages from the U.S. that so much -- that great lengths were gone to try to avoid foreign casualties.
That the surface-to-air missiles that the U.S. has been detecting appear to have been simply Syrian air defenses rather than the Russian air defenses Malcolm Nance was talking about there.
I think, privately, Russian officials will have some relief -- some relief -- that this could have been more extensive. Assuming that there have not been Russian casualties, you may see, at least privately, a relatively limited response from the Russians.
At the same time, I suspect they will use it as an opportunity, publically, to criticize the U.S. and the West and this intervention in Syria.
WILLIAMS: Yes, no reason at this hour to disagree with any of those points you just made. Kier Simmons in Moscow.
As the sun comes up on Saturday there, our chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, is in Istanbul. A very important neighbor, a very important player in that neighborhood.
Richard, what can you report from there?
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it was striking when you listened to what President Trump said and then listened to the Pentagon briefing. They, in some ways, seemed to be talking about two different kinds of operations.
President Trump described this very much as an open-ended campaign. He said that the U.S. is prepared to sustain this campaign until President Bashar al-Assad stops using chemical weapons. Then Defense Secretary Mattis also made it very clear that this was a one-off operation.
So what is it? Is it a one-off open-ended campaign? I think our allies and adversaries around the world are still going to be asking themselves, what did we just see?
Mattis said it was a heavy strike but a precise strike. That is -- that are -- those are terms that people understand, but what is the timescale? Was this a one-off? Is this the start of a long campaign?
I think it is very significant that the Russians did not respond, as far as the Pentagon knows at this hour. The Russians have very significant air defense assets in the country. The fact that they didn`t use them suggests that they were informed that the strike was coming.
They might not have been informed exactly which targets were going to be hit, but that they had an expectation that a military strike was coming as the -- as Pentagon suggested in talking about those deconfliction lines that were open.
But, frankly, Brian, we`ve been talking about this for years and other conflicts in the Middle East. I`m still scratching my head about this one. I don`t know what the scope is. Is it one and done or is this just the start?
And I think if you listen to President Trump, it sounded much more like this is the beginning of a new commitment to -- in the Middle East, not just a one-off attack on a couple of -- on three targets.
WILLIAMS: Well, Richard, you`re right. It was not lost on us, and we had planned on it being a theme in questioning with our guests tonight.
Mattis used very decisive wording there, saying, you know, this is a one- shot deal. Now, they did draw a line about future use of chemical weapons, which drew a question about, are you talking about both large and small, micro and macro? So I guess that`s open to interpretation.
ENGEL: It certainly is. There have been dozens of cases of chemical weapons allegedly used in Syria, most often chlorine gas.
Secretary Mattis, today, only was confirming effectively that chlorine gas had been used and saying that there is still some doubts or some research that needs to be done about sarin gas.
So is now the policy that the U.S. is going to respond every time chlorine gas is used? Like I just said, it has been used dozens of times. That doesn`t sound like a one and done operation.
Though if you also remember the build up to this, there was extensive reporting, including our own reporting, that Secretary Mattis was trying to be more cautious, wanted to get a broader coalition, wanted to get more people on board to launch this campaign because there is the concern that anyone that deals with military operations knows.
Once you start something, you don`t know how it`s going to end up, especially when you have the Russians in the mix, the Iranians in the mix. Russian mercenaries on the ground, variety of militia groups, 2,000 U.S. troops who are still in Syria. Not exactly near Damascus but still in the country.
So I think you saw a very deliberate attempt by Secretary Mattis to try and contain this operation, projecting that this is a limited force.
But go back, listen to the -- go over the transcript, listen to what President Trump said. He made it sound like we have just entered into a new commitment in the Middle East to stop Bashar al-Assad every time he uses chemical weapons, including chlorine gas.
WILLIAMS: Richard Engel in Istanbul, Turkey. You are right to make that distinction based on all that we have seen so far and a decidedly mixed message. I think that`s the polite way of putting it.
Rick Stengel is here with us in our studios in New York. He is a veteran of the U.S. State Department in the Obama administration, in the public affairs shop there, and a veteran journalist as well. Among his past jobs, he ran "TIME" magazine across the street here on Sixth Avenue in New York.
Welcome. And I have to delve right into politics. I don`t need to remind you that since the advent of the national security adviser in the White House, there`s been almost built in tension, mostly with secretaries of state but sometimes with other cabinet departments like the Pentagon.
There were reports floating out there today that there was a disagreement between Mr. Bolton on his first week of work as national security adviser and Secretary Mattis, a four-star retired Marine general.
And it looks -- if you view that as correct, it sure looks like one side won and that was the guy who had the last word tonight.
RICHARD STENGEL, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. I mean, I don`t think it`s an unfair way to look at it. And certainly from that perspective, the Bolton perspective would have been, is this a broader initiative?
STENGEL: Is this a sustained initiative? Is it focused on regime change, which this was not at all, versus the Mattis approach, which is more surgical, trying to not to get too involved? And I think, yes, from that perspective, General Mattis` approach won out.
But there were some new things tonight, though. One part of General Mattis winning out was the coordination with our allies, the British and the French, that didn`t happen the last time.
The second thing was it was bigger. And the third thing was Trump`s rhetoric, where he called out Russia and Iran specifically and said, like, hey, with friends like you have in Syria, this is not a smart way to behave. And that also is something new, but it particularly wasn`t that grander plan that we thought Bolton was agitating for.
Now, of course, it`s only his second or third day in the job, so it`s too soon to tell.
WILLIAMS: And to Richard Engel`s point, when you compare the two remarks of the President and the Secretary, the President surely made it sound like this was going to be part of an ongoing campaign. Like, at minimum, where there would be a Saturday night event we would be covering and a Sunday night event we would be covering, but Mattis put an end to that.
STENGEL: Yes. I mean, the terms that the President used was we are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents. I mean, there`s nothing sustaining about this. I mean, it is a one and done operation.
That being said, you know, General Mattis said it`s really up to the Syrian regime. And by the way, it is very strange why they continue to use chemical agents when they are almost at the end of winning their civil war. There`s no reason to try to provoke the United States by using chemical weapons.
And, by the way, we don`t know if Assad is actually able to control the use of chemical weapons either. So in that sense, our response is proportionate.
But, again, all these things, Brian, there`s no military effort to change things. What this is it`s always symbolic. It`s sending a message.
It`s sending a bigger message this time that we don`t want to tolerate this anymore, and we don`t want it to happen again. But it`s not as though the military effort, the kinetic effort itself, is actually going to change things on the ground.
WILLIAMS: And let`s also put out there that we were flying near and shooting missiles over a highly fraught, very dangerous neighborhood.
WILLIAMS: You have dug-in Russians with air defenses and at least two bases on the water. You have, obviously, Kurd-controlled land. You have ISIS-controlled land. You`ve got 2,000 Americans in uniform on the ground.
And, oh, and by the way, embedded Russian and Iranian units. And then you have the forces of Bashar al-Assad.
STENGEL: I mean, a hornet`s nest doesn`t begin to describe how complicated it is. And this notion of the deconfliction, which everybody was talking about, this does -- it happens all the time. It was happening in 2014, 2015, 2016.
But again the reason that this was a tailored operation is that we avoided the Iranian soldiers, the Hezbollah troops. We avoided the 4th Armored Division, which is the group that protects Assad. We really were surgically focused on just these places that either create or house chemical weapons.
WILLIAMS: There`s a lot we did not strike tonight. We struck as usual in the dark of night, largely for confusion and largely to keep civilian consequences to a minimum, we`re always told.
White House correspondent Kristen Welker on the job across town in Washington.
Kristen, what was it like there tonight? We were -- the news media were informed late this afternoon that there would be no more news out of there. That there was a chance the President was leaving the premises to go to a local dinner in Washington and then back.
Which, of course, is their prerogative. Loose lips sink ships. And they kind of put a false lid on any more news for tonight, and here we are talking at 10 minutes of 11:00, Eastern Time.
KRISTEN WELKER, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Brian, they kept that lid essentially, false lid, if you will, on there being any more news really right up until the moments before the President delivered his remarks.
The top communication officials here, who have offices right behind where I am standing, all left. We thought they were going home. Instead, some of them did, in fact, stay, were in the room with the President when he delivered his remarks.
So it was clear they did not want to tip their hands on this. They wanted the President to be the first to make this very significant announcement tonight.
I can tell you, I`ve been trying to drill down on specifically what he meant by "sustained," this discussion that you started having with Richard a few moments ago.
I spoke with a White House official who said, frankly, it`s not clear what that means, however, stressed this one point -- the President saw it as crossing a red line last year when Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. The fact that he did it again, for the President, was really a game changer.
He wants this response to be stronger. And, again, we`re still assessing just how robust this response has been. But that it was very important from the President`s perspective to send a strong signal.
When you think about the Syria strategy as a whole, though, Brian, you have to go back to a few days before this chemical weapons attack when the President was talking about getting out of Syria altogether.
He then had a meeting with his top military advisers, and they convinced him that it was too soon to pull out, that pulling out would leave a vacuum, would allow ISIS to flourish in the region. And so he ultimately agreed to allow troops to stay in for some length of time but stressed that he wanted them out in short order.
The fact that this chemical weapons attack has occurred, according to U.S. officials, has really re-embroiled the United States in this engagement in Syria. So the question for the President, I think, becomes, how does he unwind this if he, in fact, continues to have that same goal?
It`s also worth noting, Brian, that Russians -- the Russians have had some very forceful language in recent days, have essentially threatened to shoot the U.S. missiles out of the sky. President Trump firing back on Twitter, in remarks throughout the week here at the White House, saying that the U.S. would be undeterred.
So we`re still trying to assess specifically what that term "sustained" means, but certainly some mixed signals coming from the White House and the Pentagon tonight, Brian.
WILLIAMS: Kristen Welker, a more interesting Friday night than usual, certainly, at the White House. And we join everyone there in hoping that all forces got back safely after this.
I want to bring in Admiral James Stavridis, 30-year career in the Navy, Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, among other titles and other travels in his three decades.
Admiral, first of all, your reaction to the action tonight as you understand the components of it.
ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS (RET.), FORMER SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER EUROPE, NORTH ATLANTIC TREATY ORGANIZATION: I think it is a proportional response, Brian, and I think it kind of ups the game from the Tomahawk strikes of a year ago, which were -- really were just a signal. I think this does go after actual capability that we see on the ground.
We`re going after that chemical weapons kill chain that kind of runs from research to production to storage to transportation to command and control to delivery. All of those are legitimate targets under international law.
So I think this strike tonight is appropriate. I think it is going to enhance the signal that was sent. But the question is, is it really connected to a larger strategy about whether we want to go? That is yet to be determined.
We have yet to hear from the administration, and that gets to the point of these mixed signals -- a tweet that says, "I`m pulling out," a tweet that says, "I`m going to strike immediately," a tweet that says, "Maybe I`ll strike immediately, maybe I`ll strike later."
This is really the problem. I think we want to be tactically surprising, but we want to be strategically consistent. And in this event, we have been tactically predictable. This strike was telegraphed for days. But we`re strategically inconsistent.
So the onus on the administration stepping forward is going to be to lay out the strategy that is going to connect to this tactical strike, which I do think was appropriate.
WILLIAMS: Admiral, in part because we have an employee with a relative serving on one of these vessels and in part because of your service to the U.S. Navy, I thought we`d take just a moment for any and all of the families who may have a loved one as part of this armada tonight and mention the vessels we know of that are involved in this strike group.
Starting with the carrier Harry Truman, accompanied by two submarines, the Georgia and the John Warner. Nine destroyers, the Cook, the Porter, the Carney, the Laboon, the Farragut, the Sherman, the Bulkeley, and the Arleigh Burke. And one missile cruiser, the USS Normandy. I also saw a report the USS New York was involved.
Having said that, the air wings will become evident as we learn more from the Pentagon tomorrow morning.
Admiral, I`m hearing from a dependable source that this was approximately, at the end of the day, 120 cruise missiles in the air. Does that make sense to you as a target package?
STAVRIDIS: It absolutely does, Brian. And I`ve commanded those Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. You mentioned the Arleigh Burke. That`s the lead ship --
STAVRIDIS: -- of a class of well over 60 destroyers. Each of them carries 100 missiles that can be launched.
I think about 120 would knock down a lot of air defense, would take out a lot of ground targets. Our submarines can fire -- and I think it`s also worth mentioning that both the French and the British were involved in this.
I`ll be looking forward to learn exactly what they contributed, but I must say, as an admiral who commanded aircraft carrier strike group, the submarines in combat in that group, and the destroyers, it`s a good day for the Navy.
WILLIAMS: Safe to say that the original Arleigh Burke, chief of naval operations and an admiral himself, would be amazed at the technology onboard any and all of these vessels today, isn`t it, Admiral?
STAVRIDIS: Absolutely. I think Arleigh Burke, who served the longest of any chief of naval operations, would be extremely proud. And we ought to remember, Brian, the flexibility of these naval forces.
They can move a thousand miles a day. They are highly, highly lethal. And very importantly, these weapons are extremely precise.
We can avoid significant collateral damage by using them because we always want to make sure that we are doing everything we can, as Secretary Mattis said, to reduce the chances of collateral damage, not only against the Syrian civilians, but frankly against Russian forces. Because the last thing we want here is an escalation of conflict between the United States and Russia.
WILLIAMS: Admiral James Stavridis, thank you so much for being with us. We always appreciate it. Thank you, Admiral.
STAVRIDIS: Thank you.
WILLIAMS: We are joined tonight as well by Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell of the state of California. Importantly, one of the reasons we have him on often is his seat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence.
Congressman, you just heard the Admiral repeat precision strikes. All the years I`ve been doing it, I`ve never heard anyone in government or at the Pentagon declare that the strikes this evening were imprecise and scattershot. That is the term of art that they use.
Having said that, as they say in politics, there`s always a tweet. I want to read you two from our current president from before he was president, back in 2013.
What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long- term conflict? Obama needs congressional approval.
Tweet number two, the President must get congressional approval before attacking Syria. Big mistake if he does not.
That`s a setup, Congressman. Did anyone come to Congress and either inform or seek approval before what happened tonight?
REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D-CA), MINORITY MEMBER, HOUSE PERMANENT SELECT COMMITTEE ON INTELLIGENCE: Good evening, Brian. No, Congress was not consulted for approval.
And, first, I just must say this operation, of course, involves people. And so, thankfully, no troops, it sounds like, were hurt. But I would also like to verify whether that`s the case on the ground in that no civilians were hurt.
But we must do all we can to prevent Syria from using chemical weapons and prevent an unhinged president or a hinged president from taking us to war in the Middle East without a plan. We`ve seen what that has done before.
He should have gone to Congress. He should have told us what the amount of time we`re going to commit to Syria would be, what the terrain covered would be. Is this also going to include Iran or Russia for their involvement? And what`s the troop commitment?
And finally, when I hear a one-stop operation or a one-shot operation, that`s what we did last year. And, Brian, it didn`t work. And it didn`t work because we don`t have a strategic objective for Syria.
So we can only expect that without working with Middle East allies and having a way to achieve these objectives, that this is going to happen again, and we`re going to be closer and closer to a protracted war in the Middle East.
WILLIAMS: Well, the question becomes what it so often is in dealings with this president. What recourse do you have?
SWALWELL: Well, we have the power of the purse, of course.
And, you know, this Congress, in every way, has given this president, you know, an unchecked Article 1. You know, this president has no stop light, no stop sign, and no cop on the beat on just about everything that he does.
But we have the power to declare war, and the President said that this will be a sustained operation, which, incidentally, is in conflict with what Secretary Mattis said. So that`s why Congress should be involved.
And also, Brian, this president, in just this week, with what we`re learning more and more about from James Comey, his own lawyer is now under federal investigation. He is not, I think, stable to conduct an operation like this. This is all the more reason that Congress should be involved.
WILLIAMS: That is a foreshadow of the conversation we`re going to have in part over the next hour.
Congressman Eric Swalwell, Democrat of the state of California, thank you so much for being here with us.
SWALWELL: Yes. My pleasure, Brian.